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Turning the Pages: Cool Running Book Reviews
Running related books are being published with ever-increasing frequency, on almost every conceivable topic related to the sport. Here are reviews of some of those books.

Turning the Pages: Cool Running Book Reviews

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By Don Allison
Posted Tuesday, 30 April, 2002

Running related books are being published with ever-increasing frequency, on almost every conceivable topic related to the sport. Here are reviews of some of those books.

Staying the Course: A Runner's Toughest Race, by Dick Beardsley, with Maureen Anderson

If the career of a typical elite runner can be described as a rollercoaster ride, then what metaphor can possibly used to explain the saga of Dick Beardsley? Tidal wave?

By now, many runners know, at least on some level, the story of Beardsley's life, in running and outside of the sport. A modestly talented, unassuming teenage distance runner from Minnesota, Beardsley's running took off like a rocket in the late 1970s when he found a race he was perfectly suited for: the marathon. Beardsley was a hero for the underdog: although he did not run for a high-powered college track program, he still managed to raise himself to elite status, through hard work, trial and error, and pure guts. 2:47, 2:33, 2:31, 2:21, 2:16: 2:12: as his marathon times dropped, his confidence soared. He was living out every runner's dream.

Every rollercoaster reaches a pinnacle however, and Beardsley's zenith occurred at the 1982 Boston Marathon. In his now famous "Duel in the Sun" with Alberto Salazar, Dick ran a spectacular time of 2:08:54, falling just two seconds short of victory but etching his name in marathon history.

In his autobiography, Staying the Course: A Runner's Toughest Race, written with author Maureen Anderson, the account of Dick Beardsley's rise to marathon stardom is riveting. Given his "aw-shucks" Midwestern tone, one can't help but like him. One anecdote recounted in Staying the Course best reveals Beardsley's likeable personality. Two days before the 1981 Stockholm Marathon, Beardsley went out for a short training, but got lost in the unfamiliar city; he ended up logging 14 miles. Back at his hotel room he knew he needed to rest and recover if he were to run decently in the race. A short while later the phone rang; it was Bill Rodgers, also in town for the marathon. "How would you like to go for a run?" Rodgers inquired. Despite his fatigue and the imminent marathon, Beardsley agreed. "It was Bill Rodgers!" Beardsley explained. "How could I possibly have said no?"

The inevitable descent from the pinnacle of the 1982 Boston Marathon is recounted in the second half of Staying the Course. Like Beardsley's rise to marathon stardom, that descent is anything by normal. Overuse injuries start the decline of his running career, despite how desperate his desire to run in the Olympic Games. But a series of accidents start the affable Midwesterner on a far more serious decline that forces him to confront underlying demons, which were submerged during the halcyon days of his running career.

Not surprisingly, this portion of the book is less uplifting and harder to read. In addition, it is not as clearly written as the fist half. The series of events that leads Beardsley down the road to prescription drug addiction are not presented in chronological order, making it difficult for the reader to get a clear picture. That murkiness is compounded by both Beardsley and his ghost writer Anderson offering too many pat explanations for what inevitably occurred. "But I was in so much pain!" is a line that is used many times, but does not seem to fit well. The clich├ęs are unnecessary really, as in the end, Beardsley comes completely clean concerning his troubles and what cased them. That minor flaw aside, readers will surely find themselves anxiously turning the pages of this most unusual autobiography

Staying the Course is not a typical runner's story, primarily because Dick Beardsley was not a typical distance runner, given the almost surreal experiences that have marked his life, and his unsinkable optimism. That being said, it surely could not have been an easy book for Beardsley to write. But it is a book that all distance runners should read. Although few, if any of us, have experienced the kinds of highs and lows that Dick Beardsley has, we can all see something of ourselves in this book, and we can all learn lessons from those experiences that will serve us well, both in running and away from the sport.

Programmed to Run, by Thomas Miller, PhD

Just about every top runner has penned a "how to" running book it seems, from Bill Rodgers to Grete Waitz, Jeff Galloway, and Uta Pippig. Invariably, these books follow a formulatic approach, focusing on most basic aspects of the sport, most of which are familiar to runners with even a modest amount of experience.

One area in which almost all "how to" running books are lacking is the subject of running biomechanics. That void is surely due to the fact that biomechanics is the most difficult aspect of distance running to fully understand and properly explain to a reader. In his book Programmed to Run, author Thomas Miller does more than a credible job of doing just that.

Although not specifically written for ultrarunners, there is a plethora of useable material for them in Programmed to Run. Delving deep into the theory and implementation of biomechanics, Miller employs a readable style, explaining the importance of proper mechanics in distance running. If you wonder how important biomechanical efficiency is in distance running, stand at the finish line of any road race and watch the progression of runners as they come in. Aside from raw physical fitness, you will witness the huge advantage that superb biomechanics offers elite runners over the "middle of the pack" finishers.

The point that Miller continues to drive home throughout Programmed to Run is that most novice runners (and even some with years of experience) overstride, causing all sorts of biomechanical inefficiencies, primarily because the body's center of gravity is too far forward during the landing phase of the stride and the resulting push off. In order to ameliorate this potential problem, Miller suggests we only look at elite Kenyan distance runners. Their slight forward lean (something many coaches discourage) allows them to keep their center of gravity properly balanced and thus run with the most efficient stride possible. Miller stresses that even small corrections and improvements in one's running mechanics can result in improved performance.

Aside from optimal running biomechanics, mental preparation, performance goals and even "psychomechanics" are other subjects addressed in impressive detail in Programmed to Run. Although Miller does a more than adequate job presenting this material, the real value of this book comes early on in the pages devoted to biomechanics.

Rarely has this topic been so thoroughly covered in one running book. Although Miller has run more than 100 marathons, he readily admits that he is less than a world-class runner himself. He has shown in Programmed to Run however, that he knows proper running form-and how too convey those principles to the reader. In actuality, that skill is as rare as the ability to run a 2:08 marathon.

The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, by Adam Chase and Nancy Hobbs

Given the enormous growth in the popularity of trail running in recent years, it only stands to reason that sooner or later a book devoted to this subject would be published. That has come to pass with The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, by Adam Chase and Nancy Hobbs.

Both Chase and Hobbs have extensive experience in the sport, and are thus well qualified to offer advice on the topic of off-road running. Chase has run dozens of ultras in Colorado and beyond, winning many of them. Hobbs also has much trail running and racing experience, and is the director of AATRA, The All American Trail Running Association.

Geared primarily towards the beginning trail runner, The Ultimate Guide still has much to offer the experienced trail runner as well. All the requisite topics pertinent to trail running are covered here: technique, equipment, nutrition, injuries, and training schedules.

The Ultimate Guide is peppered with stories, anecdotes, and quotes from top trail runners. An added bonus is the outstanding array of photos taken from many different trail locations in the U.S by photographer Phil Milinski. Although advice from a number of experts is cited throughout the book, Chase and Hobbs continually stress that trail running is not just a sport for elite runners, but one that can be enjoyed by all. Every sport should have a primer. In The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running, Hobbs and Chase have more than adequately produced such a book for this burgeoning sport.

To the Edge: A Man, Death Valley, and the Mystery of Endurance, by Kirk Johnson

Perhaps the easiest type of running story to write is that detailing one's personal running experience. That being said, it is also the most difficult kind of story to make interesting for the reader. In To the Edge, author Kirk Johnson digs deep into his reservoir of literary talent to make that happen, recounting his journey from sedentary author to hardened ultrarunner. In an usual progression, Johnson, a New York Times reporter, becomes fixated with the Badwater Ultramarathon after completing his first marathon in New York City.

Johnson's accelerated learning process adds a unique twist to the narrative, as does his highly descriptive account of the Badwater race itself. Just reaching the starting line is an ordeal for Johnson, and although the account of the race is somewhat anticlimactic, all ultrarunners can relate to the inevitable ups and downs Johnson experiences during 135 long and painful miles.

Although one gets the feeling that Johnson is just a brief interloper in the sport of ultrarunning, his evolution from non-runner to ultrarunner is captivating nonetheless. Johnson spares the reader no details, and is quite frank and self effacing in taking the reader inside his family relationships, all of which play a pivotal role in leading Johnson to the desert in Death Valley. If the book has a downfall, it is in the repetitive forrays into Johnson's obsession with his Badwater pursuit. Too much of the book is spent exploring this issue, thus causing it to lag in spots. Also, a somewhat amusing, but eventually tiresome aspect of To the Edge is the fawning adoration Johnson bestows upon ultrarunners he has read about but is reluctant to approach. For many that have participated in the sport of ultrarunning for a time, this kind of idolization is rarely seen, thus does not seem to fit with the rest of the story.

The sport of ultrarunning has rarely attracted the attention of elite writers. That fact alone is not enough of a reason to read To the Edge, but the story that this writer offers in its pages is. Both the ultrarunning experience from the perspective of a novice and the polished prose in its telling make To the Edge a worthwhile read.

Running Encyclopedia, By Joe Henderson and Rich Benyo

No one would disagree with the opinion that through the years running has created a wealth of history. Thousands of personalities have made their marks on the sport, in addition to countless events, products, and places. How could all of this information be assembled in one place? Well, two authors have attempted to do just that. Long-time running journalists Joe Henderson and Rich Benyo have authored Running Encyclopedia, a compendium of distance running from A to Z.

It certainly is a courageous effort. Running Encyclopedia contains a wealth of information and data laid out in a concise fashion. For anyone who has been involved in the sport for a period of time, the book brings back memories as well. Such a tome would be pointless without attempting to be as complete as possible, and in its 417 pages, it comes close. There are some conspicuous omissions however. Some running luminaries thatq have a had a great impact upon the sport are missing, while dozens of other lesser-knowns are featured, including George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Oprah Winfrey. One would have to question whether any of this trio had any real impact on the sport, other than as novelties.

In the end, the book is brought down by the open biases of the authors, as some entries are openly lavished with praise, while others are disdained. In addition to completeness, an encyclopedia should also strive for neutrality, and in the latter category Running Encyclopedia falls short.



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